It's OK to Admit That You're Hungry and Want to Eat

When you say, "I could eat," what do you actually mean?



How many times have you said, “I could eat” to a friend over the course of a lifetime? The number must be in the hundreds at least. And you have surely heard it in turn from others more often than you could possibly hope to count. But what do we mean when we say it?

“I could eat” differs from all other possible answers to the question, “Are you hungry?” (or its cousin, “Have you had dinner yet?”) because it is the only response which is also a saying in its own right. “Yes, I’m hungry” or “No, I just ate” are mere statements of fact, but, “I could eat” is an expression. We say, “I could eat” in the same knowing tone that we might say, “Break a leg” before a performance; it carries its own history with it. (Incidentally, “I could eat” is by no means related to, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” despite holding a few key words in common. The one has nothing to do with the other.)

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"I could eat" has multiple meanings that extend beyond the literal. It can be deployed self-deprecatingly, optimistically, or passive-aggressively. It can chide, fortify, reprove, deflect, or offer social cover, depending on the style in which it is delivered. For there is a delicacy that must be observed in the display of social hunger. With an old friend of longstanding intimacy, you might cheerfully admit to being ravenous at an odd hour, but in the middle of a work conference, surrounded by a lot of strangers who outrank you, you might understandably feel reluctance over being the first to admit you want to break for lunch.

There is the polite, amenable version: I could eat!

This version is best reserved for coworkers one doesn’t know very well, new acquaintances who may yet become friends, and large group outings. You have not put too much of yourself forward, and you have not gone so far as to mention when you last ate, thereby painting yourself into a corner. You are in the middle of the stream, neither driving the group before you nor lagging behind. You don’t know anyone here well enough yet to gauge how their appetites might be influenced by the appetites of others, so you opt for the conservative, risk-limiting portfolio. You could eat. You’re willing, but you’re not urgent. You’re an asset to the team, willing to pass the ball when it comes to you, and not looking to make waves. They’re lucky to have you!

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Then there is the suspicious version, paranoid, close-mouthed, willing to admit nothing, pleading the fifth type: I could eat.

Anyone could eat. I’m just like anyone, and everyone in the world is just like me. All my systems are fully functional, I’m with the band, and if you want me to confess to any errors, limitations, a guilty conscience, or so much as an outstanding parking ticket, you’re going to have to apply a lot more pressure first. I will never be the first in this group to admit I’m hungry. It’s like running for president or becoming a celebrity — I don’t want that kind of scrutiny. I’m not going to betray my desires to you, man. Useful for all-day job interviews, group dinners with new acquaintances you suspect you are going to dislike, spontaneous run-ins with a certain class of ex, shopping trips with your least favorite grandmother.

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There is the hearty, good-natured, willing to take the lead but only when prompted, never over-eager option: I could eat!

Hey, great news: I could eat! No pressure, but I could eat! Can you believe it? What a stroke of luck! It’s open-ended and non-specific, but out of geniality rather than caginess. I can adjust my own appetite either up or down to match the rest of the group. You want it? You got it! You’ll never be hungry alone, I can promise you that. When I’m with you, I’m here. I have an appetite as mighty as the affection that flourishes between us! An always-welcome version, but especially useful when you suspect your companions are on the polite or timid side.

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There is the withholding, slightly disapproving, parsimonious, bet-hedging: I could eat.

“...But why would I?” remains the unspoken follow-up. Socially very chilling, and the results are often unpleasant, although it undeniably works at preventing an open-ended hangout from turning into a date, or chastising an over-eager acquaintance who cherishes ambitions of friendship. Only use it if you have an iron will and know you won’t abruptly backtrack once the mood drops. (I myself am nearly incapable of using this one, unless in the direst of circumstances, and sometimes not even then.)

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Then there is the generous, cheerfully-deceitful, option: Oh! I could eat.

Here, enthusiasm is matched by a note of uncertainty, and gives the impression that the speaker is willing to eat a second dinner just to please their companion. Most commonly deployed on early dates in what will almost certainly become a mutually frustrating relationship, where you constantly round up your own interests and desires to match theirs (or worse, what you imagine theirs to be without asking, and martyring yourself for an imaginary construct while your actual partner thought you were dealing honestly with them the whole time).

This last one may prove more trouble than it’s worth, honestly. “I just had dinner, but I could eat” is just as true, and puts you two on a more equal footing. Possibly there are some people who cannot eat more after they have just had dinner, but I think it’s unlikely.

You may not often need to rely upon, “I could eat” to smooth the conversational way for you. It’s best when it’s held in reserve, for only really serious need when you’re trying to get a feel for a new pack of people. “I could eat” was never meant for everyday use. But by god, it’s so wonderfully true, so beautifully vague, so plastic and shaded with a hundred possible meetings. When you need it — and eventually almost everyone will need it at least once in a lifetime — “I could eat” delivers, every time.

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